Wednesday I went with one of my village friends out to get saksak. And it was quite the adventure. I could call it the Hike-Scrub-Carry triathlon. The first half hour of the hike section, we were surrounded by huge towering trees above our heads, peaceful shade underneath without thick underbrush. It was gorgeous. I was a little unsteady on the logs we were crossing… the higher they were, the more unsteady I felt. Then we got to the swamp. At one point, I missed the log (to my credit, it was about 3” in diameter) and sank down to my knee in “soup” as the Nakui’s call it. J I felt like I could easily leave my shoe there forever if I wasn’t careful. So I did the slow pull against incredible suction, and eventually I was free! After snaking around in mucky water for another half an hour, we arrived at our destination -- a downed sago tree with half its middle already chopped out. Linai pointed to some brackish water and told me to wash the mud off (were those my legs under all that?!). It was about then that I started noticing the amount of mosquitoes around. I think I could have literally lost every pint of blood I had to them by the end of the day! I’ve never been so thankful for bug repellant in my LIFE!!! Even with multiple layers of it slathered on me, they still swarmed around, trying to land, but not liking the taste. I shared my bug repellant, realizing these ladies came here several times a week without any.
Soon, my turn to “scrub” came. Linai had split open the bark on an 8’ section of the trunk. I was handed the V shaped stick they use to chop the pith out of the sago palm. I was determined to try to keep up with Linai, if not in prowess, at least in stamina. J Watching her, I tried to copy her style. Her swings were even, coming down in a fine shave from top to bottom, her pith was fine, and she worked quickly. My swings were haphazard, my lines were choppy, my pith was chunky and my work was slow. I felt like a little child working next to a master. It was fun. J But it was so tiring. My hands started blistering. My back started aching. The mosquitoes kept attacking and then horseflies kept biting. All the while, she just rhythmically worked away like a sago scrubbing machine. About 11am, Linai, with a piece of sago pith hanging from her mouth, asked me if I’d eaten yet today. It was then I learned she hadn’t eaten since the day before. And on that day, all she’d eaten was saksak… the pudding they make from the starch rinsed out of the sago pith. No greens to go with it, no fish or meat. I couldn’t figure out what source of energy she was consuming to do all this work! By about 1pm, I was cooked. My back was aching, my hands were completely blistered and I had to tell Linai I was done. I’d scrubbed about ¼ of our 8 foot section and Linai was making quick work of the other ¾ of it. I put down my little stick with an intense feeling of relief that I didn’t have to do this every day. I thought the hard work was done for the day. J
Around 1:30, we started packing up. They drained the water out of the rinsing troughs and peeled the starch from the bottom, packaging it in leaves and vines for transport. That’s when I realized we had to get all this stuff HOME! Each of those ladies carried at least 70 pounds of starch, axes, bush knives, bark baskets, tools, etc on their backs. And not in a nice, easy to carry backpack with extra padding on the straps, but instead tied together with a vine and slung over their heads. I did what I could to help, carrying bilums, tools, whatever… thinking back to the long hike, the unsteadiness… wondering if I could manage the logs with a load on my back and no free hands. The hardest work of all was just beginning! We took a small detour up a mountain and Linai got some more betel nut to stave off the hunger. Then we turned toward home. It was a long hike and the ladies were puffing under their heavy burdens. Rosama, a girl of 12, all of 40 pounds and 4 ½ feet tall, had worked all day alongside these two grown ladies and was carrying at least 50 lbs herself. Never a complaint, always helpful. Every time the trail got tough, she was telling ME, “Sorry”, “Sorry”. Along the way, they stopped to rest briefly (usually just enough time for me to catch up J) and we were immediately swarmed by mosquitoes or horseflies. What a relief to finally start recognizing gardens near our village. I had survived! All I wanted was a huge glass of water. And then another. And then another. My whole body ached and still aches today. It sure gave me a greater appreciation for their version of the daily grind!